Honoring Women of Courage

March 8, 2014

I had the honor of joining Judge Iris Yassmin Barrios Aguilar, the President of one of two High Risk Courts in Guatemala, for lunch this week at the U.S. Institute of Peace.  Judge Barrios is perhaps best known as the judge who tried Guatemala’s ex-dictator, Efraín Ríos Montt.  Judge Barrios sentenced Ríos Montt in May last year to 80 years of prison for war crimes and genocide.  During Ríos Montt’s seventeen-month tenure from 1982-83, during a civil war that lasted from 1960-96, the army destroyed 626 villages, killed or “disappeared” more than 200,000 people and displaced an additional 1.5 million mostly poor, rural, indigenous Guatemalans.  Judge Barrios found Ríos Montt responsible for the death of 1,771 indigenous Ixil in the department of Quiché during his tenure.  As might be expected in such a charged trial, the decision was annulled by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court; a new trial is expected in January 2015.  Nonetheless, the trial was the first time a national judiciary has tried a former head of state for genocide in his home country and the sentence sets an important legal precedent worldwide.

Judge Barrios described the courage of more than 100 women witnesses who came forward during the trial at great risk.  These women of courage broke their silence after 30 years to share painful memories of the atrocities to which they and their communities had been subjected.  The women told of how their homes were burned and their crops destroyed as entire communities were forced to flee in a scorch-and-burn strategy.  Women were tortured and raped multiple times.  Children were sometimes captured and separated from their families and put in communities where they didn’t speak the language.

I asked the judge what it felt like to try a dictator and was surprised and humbled by her answer.  “It was like any other case,” she said.  “We’ve always said that all cases are equally important, no matter how small or large, and that we must pay the same attention to every case and do so efficiently regardless of who is being prosecuted.  … Justice is for everyone. … I was just doing my duty.”

Judge Barrios and the judges of Guatemala’s high risk tribunals take on some of the highest-profile cases of corruption, organized crime, drug trafficking, and human rights violations.  For her work, Judge Barrios has had grenades thrown into her house and been attacked and threatened on numerous occasions.  Today, she travels in an armored patrol car.  She told us, “I believe in justice, but I need people with rifles around me to protect me… In Guatemala, every day we risk our lives for something better–justice and fairness for citizens.”  She underscored the importance of a strong, independent judiciary.

International Women of Courage Awards

Barrios was in Washington to receive the U.S. State Department’s International Women of Courage award granted to women who have played a role in transforming their societies.   The award has been given annually since 2007 to recognize women all over the world who have shown exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality, and women’s empowerment, often at great personal risk.  Seventy-six women from 49 countries have been recipients of the award. The other recipients of this year’s award include: Nasreen Oryakhil (Afghanistan), Roshika Duo (Fiji), Bishop Rusudan Gotsiridze (Georgia), Iris Jassmin Barrios Aguilar (Guatemala), Fatima Toure (Mali), Maha Muneef (Saudi Arabia), Oinikhol Bobonazarova (Tajikistan), Ruslana Lyzhychko (Ukraine) and Beatrice Mtetwa (Zimbabwe).  

You can watch Judge Barrios and some of these other women in a program that was held this week at the U.S. Institute of Peace, co-sponsored with the U.S. State Department.   The program (see YouTube below) opens with remarks by Kristin Lord, USIP’s Acting President, and Stephanie Foster, Senior Policy Advisor for the Office of Global Women’s Issues of the U.S. Department of State.  The program is moderated by Kathleen Kuehnast, director of USIP’s Gender and Peacebuilding Center.

Alliance for Justice

These women are all part of a powerful alliance for justice.  They testify to the responsibility each of us–men and women–has to make our voices count.  They tell stories of transforming victimhood into poetry and power; using knowledge to promote social change; speaking out against violence, torture, human rights abuses, and injustice; demanding government accountability and protection for women and minorities; and finding ways to promote women’s rights.  I am struck by the humility and the commitment of these women, their courageous responses to the needs around them, and their tenacious refusal to be dissuaded from doing the work that needs to be done.

I have met innumerable women –especially in Colombia and throughout Latin America–who live their commitment to justice on a daily basis.  They fight for truth, justice, reparations, land, human rights, dignity, peace, and an end to war and violence. Sometimes their voices are loud and clear; other times they work in silence and their work goes unrecognized.  Often they facilitate and inspire the work of others.  I salute all of these women for their resilience and their commitment to making the world a better place.  I include many of my readers in this salute as well–my daughter, mother, sisters, friends, colleagues–all of you who have your compasses set on the true north or who are seeking ways to find it.  I invite you to acknowledge the women in your lives and to share with us your stories of courage in celebration of International Women’s Day.

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About Ginny Bouvier

Love reading, writing, thinking, and working with people to make the world a better place. Family and friends, yoga, travel, photography, perusing dessert menus keep me sane. Latin American enthusiast. Peace practitioner yearning for justice. Heading up the Colombia program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, but tweets and posts are my own.
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